Recession challenges community colleges

The recession has created new challenges for community colleges, writes David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal. Demand for college classes “threatens to outstrip their capacity and funding. And “training students for jobs that don’t exist is somewhere between disheartening and counterproductive.”

The White House Community Colleges Summit on Oct. 5 is a “consolation prize,” he writes.

A year ago, the president proposed pumping $12 billion over 10 years into community colleges as part of his campaign to boost the share of Americans with college degrees above those of all other countries by 2020. Congress instead approved $2 billion over four years for grants to colleges, to be used only for workers who lose jobs to imports, a restriction the White House hopes to undo.

At least, the summit will give the community colleges some respect at a difficult time. Unemployed workers are turning to community colleges for job training at the same time more students are enrolling as a low-cost first step to a four-year degree. It’s difficult to meet the needs of diverse students, says James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan.

Without a strong commitment to serving low-income students and money to do so, he warns, “community colleges will find the mission of preserving the middle class will trump the demands of low-income students.” Pressure to boost graduation rates—to invest students who will succeed—gives community colleges another reason to avoid focusing on low-income students.

Community colleges are turning into economic-development agents in their communities in order to help create jobs for their students, Wessel writes.

LaGuardia Community College trained 23 small-business owners in a program funded by Goldman Sachs. More than half have hired new staff and improved profitability after going through the program, says college president Gail Mellow in an interview with Wessel. “Without the impact of the recession, I don’t think folks would be looking at community colleges in quite this way.”

LaGuardia is trying to educate 11 percent more students with a 4.5 percent decrease in funding, says Mellow.

We’ve cut tutoring, career counseling, computer access in open labs, library hours. We refused to increase class size, because we think that impacts quality of instruction.

. . . We are looking in every way we can to cut costs through use of technology — sometimes even hoping to advance services at the same time. We are piloting an online, interactive career development process that is promising, and looking to build a similar online process for advising. After the initial investment, services should be much better in both areas.

LaGuardia was forced to close registration for new students this year and last, turning away late registrants. That tends to hurt the neediest students, Mellow says.

There is also increasing pressure from my “higher ups” to invest only in those students who will succeed. It’s a hard call to make, but wealthier students are a better bet if a campus wants to significantly increase its retention or graduation rate.

“We have to continue to sharpen our game and serve more students more effectively,” Mellow concludes.

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